kenya: nakuru

Making the effort to tour a series of parks in succession may seem a crazy idea as you embark on your 3rd five hour journey in as many days, but my God it's worth it. You will never tire - and neither should you - of waving to the young tribal children as they race across the fields to wave as you pass. As they gather at the road side in their school uniforms looking vulnerable and eager, you only wish you had the opportunity to stop, take the smallest in your arms and promise them that the white men are no longer threats.

As the journey continues, and the need for the toilet grows ever stronger, the next stop is announced as the equator. As my good friend Alison pulls out yet another set of baby wipes from her bag and I resist the urge to kiss her, we reward her with a chocolate breakfast bar as the spirit of communism is rekindled in our little mini bus community.

Approaching the equator for the third time that holiday we finally get a chance to stop and take that much envied Kodak moment stood under the 'You have arrived at the Equator' sign. As we take our turns at standing one leg aside each side of the equator, the shop owner runs out to greet us with a Pyrex jug. This alone is all that's required to send your mind into overload, but as he places the jug on the floor and asks us to crowd round, he begins to conduct a science experiment of the kind that high schools can only dream of. Standing to the left of the sign, a stick is placed in the water within the jug and the stick begins a rapid circulation round the jug, culminating in a fast spin to the dead centre of the water. The experiment is replicated to the right of the sign as the stick spins in the opposite direction. Interrupted only by occasionally passing Coke vans, Ummmmmmms and Ahaaaaaaas are the only noises to be heard. The experiment is repeated in the dead centre underneath the sign and the stick remains motionless. Realising the significance of this experiment we all become silent and reflect on the poignancy. Then we can resist no longer and the cameras come out - never has a piece of Pyrex received such international acclaim. Boots branches UK wide will be developing the same picture and wondering "what the hell?"

Those 4 minutes in the sun were enough to provide Ali with a serious dose of sunstroke, despite wearing jeans and a fleece at the time. Lesson number 4: never underestimate the extent of the African sun and ALWAYS wear a hat, but beware, if said hat has a trace of pink on it, locals will try and barter it off your very scalp!

It is here at the Equator that we make our first real acquaintance with a local who, very scarily, has an email address with which he wants to communicate with us once back in the UK. This is just too much to cope with and instead we settle on spending atrocious amounts of money in his shop instead, courtesy of the one outlet accepting Barclaycard.

At the obligatory stop at a BP station just miles from the National Park we find ourselves with a surprising lack of locals but still no toilets. As we leave the mini bus and enter the forecourt shop we revel in the fact that Dairy Milk is for sale and stock up on water bottles (about 10p per bottle) and other emergency rations.

The entrance gate to Nakuru is just minutes away through the nearest village where plumbers stores are little more than corrugated iron shacks fit for one person, and Coke retails at 7 Kenyan shillings - barely convertible to English pennies.

The entrance to the park is characterised as all others are, by the simple wooden roadside sign with a swinging pendulum - the remaining kilometers on it. This is our signal to place away all unnecessary belongings, awaken the spouse (in most cases that's me) and get out the camera and binoculars. As we approach the gate, the women in the bus appeal for a toilet stop. As we launch out of the bus and run towards the toilets, avoiding the glare of the monkeys as we go (who thankfully are far too preoccupied with entering the local schoolchildren's bus to steal their lunch) we approach the facilities and gag. All I can say is that holes in the ground have never looked so appealing. Ceramic facilities require females to hover and another to stand guard with a ready supply of Johnston and Johnston to act as face masks. Still, you gotta do what you gotta do. Surprisingly, it's the Italian woman in the group who emerged unscathed, white top still immaculate, trousers rolled elegantly to the knees with no sign of the make up having dripped off her face in fear. All I say can say is that the Scottish women in the group left much to be desired after emerging. A shower was well and truly on the cards!

Now the guidebooks tell you that Lake Nakuru plays host to an amazing two thirds of the world's population of flamingos, that's two million to you and I, but this does not in any way prepare your weak and feeble mind for the spectacle that bestows you around the next corner…..As the lush greenery of the rain forest ends and you mount the sand banks on the edge of the lake, as far as the eye can see are rows upon rows of pink, and there's never too much of it. No matter how far you crane your neck and how fast you run towards the shore, you are never complacent with the sheer amount of pink that faces you. And the noise is almost indescribable. The most accurate description I can make is that of a speedboat, no, make that 10 speed boats, all trying to launch at once. What the noise really is, is the noise of the wings of the birds as they flap and flutter just millimetres from each other, as one merges into the next, fighting for the algae on the lake's surface. John explains to us that randomly, the birds disappear for up to ten years at a time, to where we can only speculate. Again we realise just how damn lucky we have been this holiday.

We have the freedom to wander amongst the birds for the next half an hour or so, taking in the display, venturing ever closer and closer to the water's edge. A demonic instinct drives you to run into the masses, screaming and waving your arms just to see a million birds take off at once, but common sense prevails and you satisfy yourself with venturing just that little bit too close as to make a handful of birds flee in fright. Guilt immediately grabs a hold and you take ten steps back and realize you are about walk into a Maribu stork enjoying the intestinal remains of a dead, young flamingo. As you watch in morbid fascination you find it hard to tear your eyes away from the display yet you are all too aware that you are that little bit too close. With a careful 360 review you tiptoe back towards the safety of the rest of the group, camera clicking all the way.

As dark clouds begin to appear on the horizon and our first African rainfall descends, John call us back to the vehicle and we huddle inside. Sweatshirts are pulled on, camera lens' are frantically cleaned and we frustratingly wipe the steam from the windows as we are forced to pull the roof closed. But is doesn't last long - as it never does, after all, this isn't Edinburgh!

We are soon pulled back to our senses and out of our self-wallowing pity by the sighting of our first white rhino. Lake Nakuru boasts just 23 of these beasts in total and we were lucky enough to see 13 of them throughout our early afternoon in Nakuru. They are truly marvellous creatures, who command incredible stage presence and intellect, the only trouble is they make me sneeze like a bugger! My allergy to white rhinos is indescribable and as odd as the occurrence itself, serving only to prevent fabulous photos and unhibited wildlife viewing, but still, everyone has their flaws.

As we continue our safari, our wildlife lectures at Treetops are put to good use as we recognize white from black rhinos by the way they tend for their young - white walk with their young in front, black rhinos with their young behind. As we approach these wonders and silently draw breath, the birds feeding on their sores pause for a second to acknowledge us as the rhino lifts his snout from the floor. You can but wonder how anyone can cope with so much sand in the mouth but that's a discussion for another day.

After silent contemplation and the acknowledgement that our stomachs can last no longer (the Dairy Milk was not much cop) and we agree that lunch is called for. We conduct the wild Scottish call of "gotta get ta food" and John interprets this the best he can by driving at break neck speed across none existent roads, stopping only whenever we squeal out in delight at yet more rhinos, baboons and zebras. Needless to say, the journey takes longer then our stomachs would otherwise dictate and we arrive at Nakuru Lodge to check into very pleasant and aesthetic lodges, comprising of individual round huts among the gardens, consisting of nothing much more than the biggest bed you've seen and a smart bathroom which Ali insists has animals in the floor and wall tiles. Having spent much less time in there than him, I'll trust his judgment on this.

The view from the bar at Nakuru Lodge is simply breathtaking. Situated atop a hill with the lake in the distance, the vista gently slopes down to the water, as a mixture of lush green forest gives way to heavy sand banks and a sea of pink. From the height of the lodge, the flamingos are unmistakable, a carefully defined depth of pink ribbon stretching all around the lake, until the sighting gives way to the vast hills that frame the waters edge. Settling down to enjoy the view, uninterrupted with the exception of the bounding impala and the passing of baboons, your mind is free to wander, to contemplate where you are, how you got here and what significance this holiday will make on your life once you are immersed back into corporate drudgery. A cup of good old English tea in one hand and a much welcomed piece of cake just like your grandmother would make in the other, you snuggle back into the leopard print canvas chair, swing your feet onto the low rise wall and wait.

Waiting is the most underrated element of Africa. Granted, that on safari, the opportunity to sit back and do nothing is not commonplace, but compared to your "real" life back at home, it's a luxury you don't want to waste. You are out on the "chase" first thing, returning in the hours of darkness, living off your adrenaline and the wildlife sightings. The opportunity to kick back and allow the natural world to continue uninterrupted by vehicles and exhaust fumes, to allow animals to chose to stalk you, opposed to you them, is to be treasured.

There is no need to speak; chitchat almost gets in the way. Steeling glances to Ali on my right, exchanging grins, moving closer to hold hands, nothing else needs to be said. Africa says it all……

That is, of course, until a damn good bottle of wine (or 2) over dinner unleashes the opinionated, ethical tourist within you - that part of your character which, as you will debate, acknowledges that to stay in Africa and witness the glorious culture and the fabulous souls of the people requires taking two steps back from life's attainment - something that, despite your deep seated empathy with the country and people, you just could not do. It's a topical debate that rears its head within almost each and every couple each night in some form or other, whether it be the glory of the chase vs. ethical tourism, or a discussion about whether it's possible to totally and utterly fall in love with a place and yet not see yourself living there - or wanting to.

You'll have some of the best nights sleep ever on safari. Your body is exhausted through the physical activity resulting from your vehicle bounding around on scrub land, and your mind is awash with new sights, sounds and smells. Escaping the rigueur of a 7-7 routine, day after day you rise early morning on safari, full of energy and the inquisitiveness of a newborn where an idealized word awaits you, one where rhinos roam free, monkeys scamper by, rainbows dot the horizon and lions populate the fields beyond the rear of the lodge. The stuff dreams are made of.

On awaking from Treetops, we travelled on, to Lake Nakuru. One night is enough for Treetops - the experience is intense enough to make a lasting mark, no matter what you see. We travelled south again, crossing the equator for the third and fourth times (firstly north from Nairobi to Samburu, then south from Samburu to Treetops; the road from Treetops to Nakuru arced just over the median and descended south again). Another curio shop; this one more interesting than most (the produce is of a very high standard, and McDonaldsian in its frequency of appearance; for the most part, seen one roadside curio shop, seen 'em all) due to the experiment we partook in - north and south of the equator sign, pour water down a funnel into a basin and it will swirl in opposing directions; do it "exactly" on the equator and it goes straight down. All very impressive at the time and perhaps complete nonsense; even with some extensive web browsing I've been unable to figure out what on earth is going on there and whether it's a con or not. In any case, it's entertaining, we got a certificate for crossing the equator, and parted ways with a comparatively small amount of money.

More bouncing around on interestingly surfaced tracks, and we end up at Lake Nakuru. Here our confidence with the itinerary falters; we were pretty sure we were supposed to be at Lake Naivasha, which has its own island with 'tame game' that you can walk around with (if you have the time, which we didn't anyway), but Nakuru was a fabulous replacement. Here you have an attractive and plush parkland set around a saltwater lake, populated with white and black rhino, beautiful grazing zebra, lions, warthogs, and monkeys; and around two million flamingos hugging the waterline.

This is a simply bizarre and overwhelming experience. The noise, the smell, and the vividness of the imagery and expanse you are faced with is quite mind-blowing. Focus on any section of the beach and try to consider the amount of flamingos on those few metres, and the mind is already lost. Amplified to the extent of the beach that we were on, multiplied by the huge swathes of lake we never had a chance to see, and this is a remarkable sight bar none. The Marabou stork and zebra slowly meandering in between served to bring home the safeland aspect; this is not just a lake, this is protected, and this immense population (around two-thirds of the world's population of flamingos), who drop off at Nakuru for a few years and then inexplicably disappear again for another few years, flying back and forward, squawking and fishing, seem incomprehensible even now. Many photographs were taken to try and achieve the scale, but even with the mega-wide-angle 11 photo panorama shot, nothing can capture the magnitude and scale like being there in person. The slowly dawning realisation that Africa is far much more than 'proper' animals, like elephants and lions, suddenly arrives en masse in Nakuru.

We spent close to an hour standing on the edge of the lake, slowly creeping closer to the storks as they ripped dead flamingos to pieces, watching groups of flamingos take off as from an aircraft carrier, sweep across the sea and land only a few yards away. It's an odd sensation, knowing that this lake will be treated by locals in the same way we would lochs and rivers back home - that when the tourists are gone, you could take the kids down and have a picnic on the beach, amongst the zebra and flamingo.

Nakuru is home to around 25 white rhino - driving around one edge of the lake, we counted 19, dozing in the shade or slowly trudging through the forests. The horns are fabulous - you have to remind yourself that this is a species that exists in the 21st century and that you're not in some mock-up Jurassic Park with animatronic triceratops. The setting is strange - Lake Nakuru is bordered by hills and towns that seem to make the park smaller and more unlikely; with Samburu or the Mara, the area of land available convinces you that 'of course there's all these different species and landscapes', whereas Nakuru feels more like an oversized watering hole: a meeting place for the travelling crowds, a stopping off point to refresh, recuperate, and ready yourself to move on.

Not for me. I'd been out in the sun for less than five minutes at the equator without a hat on, and sunstroke hit with ferocity as we returned to the lodge for dinner. Outspan had left its mark too in the form of a violent stomach bug; the combination left me with many hours throughout the night to analyse the tiles on the bathroom floor. I don't know whether they were hallucinations, the result of endlessly peeled eyes looking out for movement on the horizon, or just that they were well made tiles, but in the terracotta patterns, I saw every type of animal in hundreds of different poses. Another reminder that this is not a place that can be forgotten - Africa permeates your existence and enlivens every breath you take. Weakened and eventually managing to lie down for a few hours sleep, it was exciting to realise that we weren't even at the half way point of the holiday. The great plains of the Mara beckoned.